Back in July, science journalist Melinda Wenner Moyer interviewed Danielle Dick, Ph.D. in her popular parenting newsletter, Is My Kid The Asshole? Dick, a neuroscientist and director of the Rutgers Addiction Research Center in New Jersey, covered the risks of teenage substance abuse and shared a growing fear for youths among the scientific community: cannabis use.
“That’s honestly the thing that those of us who study substance use and adolescents are most worried about,” Dick said. “Right now it’s the opioid epidemic, but in a decade, it’s going to be the cannabis crisis, and it’s all going to be our kids.”
Current trends may already hint at this. About 31% of 12th graders have used marijuana in the past year, according to a long-running National Institute on Drug Abuse study, and 14% use it daily. Lifetime prevalence for trying weed in 2022 was 11% in 8th grade, 24% in 10th grade, and 38% in 12th grade.
Although the National Institute on Drug Abuse study points out that more than half of teenagers in 1975 had used cannabis — a higher percentage than those today — there’s a big reason why experts are more concerned about teen marijuana use today, and it’s not just that they didn’t know the risks back then. Rather, Dick says potency has increased the risk for young users today.
Wenner Moyer is still thinking about the conversation. “I hadn’t realized that today’s marijuana is eight times stronger than the marijuana that was common 20 years ago,” she told me in an email. “It was eye-opening to learn that the two factors that most strongly shape whether or not kids use substances are their availability and their acceptance, both of which have been increasing for cannabis around the country.”
Beyond potency and accessibility, Dick’s colleague, Tammy Chung, Ph.D., a professor of psychiatry and director of the Rutgers Center for Population Behavioral Health, says much of the risk surrounding teen marijuana use lies in the questions the scientific community is still working to answer. Evidence suggests that weed affects their brain development and can increase their risk of mental illnesses such as schizophrenia and impact their learning, memory, coordination, attention span, and problem-solving abilities.
Fatherly spoke to Chung about why experts are so worried about the potential for a teen marijuana crisis and what parents must keep in mind.
How much stronger today’s weed is compared to weed 20 years ago.
Do you think marijuana is going to be the next big drug for teens?
Cannabis is the illicit drug that I’m most worried about when I think about adolescent substance use.
Cannabis use in teens has decreased since the 1970s and even since the pandemic. Given that, why are experts worried? Is potency the main problem, or are there other factors parents should be aware of?
Yes, teen cannabis use has generally decreased since the ‘70s. However, there was a sharp increase in the 1990s. And during the pandemic, in 2021, there was a decline in teen cannabis use — about 4 to 11 percentage points among 8th to 12th graders. The decline appears to be associated with a decrease in availability and access to cannabis due, in part, to the pandemic. In 2022, there was a slight increase in cannabis use (up to two percentage points) among 8th to 12th graders, but use remained below the 2020 pre-pandemic level.
That said, teen cannabis use is still relatively high, and cause for concern. From 2017-2020, there was an upward trend in cannabis exposures in youth reported to U.S. poison centers, especially involving edibles. As you mention, this upward trend might be driven by access to high potency cannabis products, particularly edibles, which, due to their delayed effects, might be consumed by a teen in larger amounts than recommended, resulting in adverse reactions.
In addition, Monitoring the Future data from young adults (aged 19 to 30) indicate that reports of cannabis use in the past year increased in 2021 compared to 5 years prior, reaching a peak since first being tracked in 1988. This increase in cannabis use among young adults is concerning because young adults can provide access to teens (like siblings, peers, romantic partners) and model cannabis use, which could result in rising rates of teen cannabis use.
Some of the emerging findings are showing that if someone starts using cannabis early in adolescence, it can really have an impact on not only brain structure, but also one’s brain function.
In their conversation, Wenner Moyer and Dick talked about how there isn’t a lot of data to study how cannabis affects the adolescent brain because it’s a Schedule One drug, and there are some ethical restrictions there. Even so, can we talk about the milestones a brain hits between the ages of 13 and 20 and how substance abuse could interfere?
Adolescence is a period of really rapid growth. During that time, the brain systems that develop or mature are involved in responding to emotion and reward. Adolescents tend to respond much more impulsively and quickly, and the brain systems responsible for decision-making and judgment tend to respond much more slowly. It’s like having an unskilled driver at the wheel — someone ready to put their foot on the accelerator who is not yet able to make good decisions about when to put on the brakes.
When you add cannabis into that equation, it alters the course of brain development at a time when you want to have these systems of impulse control maturing right on course. Some of the emerging findings are showing that if someone starts using cannabis early in adolescence, it can really have an impact on not only brain structure, but also one’s brain function. So trying to delay the onset of cannabis use is something that’s going to reduce risks later in life.
Do experts think prolonged use by adolescents could cause lasting brain damage, or is it something that would delay development but perhaps not be permanent?
That’s a great question, and I’m not sure we have answers. What we know most about in terms of data is based on adults who have used cannabis heavily and for a long time. We don’t have much information on those individuals either, which is great! We don’t want to see large numbers of people starting to use cannabis early, at high levels, almost daily. That’s where we’re at with the science, and we’re working on other observational studies right now.
What about kids who are already struggling with conditions like ADHD and mental health issues like depression — how might cannabis affect them?
Generally speaking, teens who have those conditions might want to use cannabis because it might help them relieve those symptoms immediately. But at the same time, it’s probably not going to help them in the long run. There might be a rebound effect, and once the cannabis wears off, those underlying symptoms return.
Does legalization make teens more likely to use marijuana?
People have tried to figure out whether it is increasing among adolescents in states that have legalized cannabis, whether it’s legal for adult use or legal for medicinal purposes. I don’t know that they’ve found clear results regarding policy and its effects on whether those rates have increased in those states. But I think it depends on the increased exposure that youth are experiencing, especially with increasing legalization and acceptance, and especially the availability of cannabis products.
Parents need to be on the same page about the messaging in terms of what they’re going to say to their children about cannabis use and alcohol use. What do we as a family think about it?
Have you found that teens who experiment with alcohol and other substances are more likely to try cannabis as well?
Often, the person who tries one substance is a risk-taker, or they’re spending time with friends who have access to these other substances, so they tend to experiment. Risk can be circumstantial, and being around groups that provide access and opportunity is a contributing factor.
Given all of this and how connected kids are to the internet, social media, their peers, and the world in general, is there anything you’ve found that deters teens from substance use? How should parents approach this issue, and what should we keep in mind?
That’s the million-dollar question. It’s hard being a parent, just doing the everyday things to keep your child safe to show how much you care and love them. And at this stage, their friends are important and influential in terms of how teens begin thinking about substance use and experimenting. Kids start using it with friends and may see it used within their family or home.
Going back to the beginning, one of the biggest risk factors is prenatal substance exposure in utero; another risk is a family history of substance use. So, as a young person, you’re taking in all this information — the behaviors of friends and the people interacting with your family; you’re a sponge absorbing these messages. So, parents need to be on the same page about the messaging in terms of what they’re going to say to their children about cannabis use and alcohol use. What do we as a family think about it?
For teens under pressure from their friends, you should have a developed family plan on how to respond in those situations and get out of those scenarios when they arise. It can help to practice those conversations with a parent who really cares for you and wants to keep you safe. I also think it’s especially important for teens to have positive goals, things they want to achieve that don’t involve substances.
So, early context and messaging are everything?